Tweak Your Major, Transform Your Job Prospects

Minor Changes to Your Major Can Make a Big Difference in Your Job Hunting Success
Minor Changes to Your Major Can Make a Big Difference in Your Job Hunting Success

This is a tough time to graduate from college. While unemployment is high across the board, recent grads face a brutal 9.3% unemployment rate -- the highest that statistic has been for them since the Great Recession began. Worse yet, studies have shown that fewer than half of recent college students are finding jobs that relate to their majors, and just more than half felt their jobs made use of what they learned as undergrads.

So how can college grads improve the value of their high-priced degrees? The simple answer lies in choice of major. Some majors, like mining engineering, have extremely low unemployment rates, while others, like library studies, are practically a one-way ticket to joblessness.

Most students tend to pick a major based on their own skills and passions -- what they're good at and what they enjoy. But there are ways to do that and also chose a good one for finding a job after commencement. By weighing the skills required for various majors, the unemployment rates of their graduates, and the salaries a particular degree are likely to lead to, it's possible to avoid some nasty surprises when graduation comes.

To simplify the process, we've looked at a few of the highest-unemployment majors and offered some options that use the same skills but offer much better odds.

Passionate About Psychology ... ?

For students hoping to get a job immediately after graduation, psychology is a tough bet. Most jobs in the field require a graduate degree, and students who don't get into those highly competitive programs often find themselves searching fruitlessly for work. In fact, four of the 10 majors with the highest unemployment rates are psychology-related, and jobs for them tend to offer comparatively low salaries.

... Consider Educational Administration or Nursing

But if you like helping people deal with their physical or emotional problems, there are several other majors that are likely to help you find work at a reasonable salary. On the clinical side, nursing has a 2.2% unemployment rate -- one of the lowest -- and an impressive $60,000 median salary. Alternately, if you'd prefer to work with children, educational administration has a 0% unemployment rate and a median salary of $65,000; another option, student counseling, offers unimpressive salaries -- the median hovers around $20,000 -- but also has an enviable 0% unemployment rate.

All About the Arts ... ?

There's a reason the "starving artist" is a cliche: Arts students top most lists of the least-employable college graduates. Even commercial art and graphic design, generally regarded as the most functional of the fine arts majors, has a shocking 8.1% unemployment rate, and other fine arts majors range between 7.4% and 16.2% unemployment.

... Think Art Education

This isn't to say, however, that all artists have to starve. If you love art and are devoted to human expression, art education can help you scratch your creative itch while putting you on the track to a solid career. Language and drama education, for example, have 95% employment rates, among the highest. Meanwhile, art and music education offer even better odds: Only 4.2% of grads are unemployed. And while not especially lucrative, both lead to solid $41,000 median salaries.

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Are You a U.S. History Buff ... ?

Georges Santayana famously wrote that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Unfortunately, those who dedicate their college years to remembering the past may be condemned to work at McDonald's. U.S. history majors have the third highest unemployment rate: 15.1% of them can't find jobs after graduation, and their colleagues in general social sciences face a similarly high unemployment rate. General history students do a bit better, thought their 6.5% unemployment rate -- while comparatively enviable -- isn't stellar.

... Apply It to the Future in Public Policy

But for those with a social science mindset, there are majors that offer a more promising future. Public policy, for example, has only a 2.2% unemployment rate. Paired with an impressive median salary of $65,000, it offers a secure option for would-be history majors. For those who'd prefer to stay in the classroom, majors in social science or history education are also in demand. Only 3% are unemployed, and the $45,000 median salary is reasonable.

There's No Money in Being a Bookworm ...

Though it's thought of as one of the classic "unemployable" majors, English isn't actually such a terrible move: While its 6.7% unemployment rate isn't ideal, it still places English grads far above the pack. For that matter, philosophy -- also a classic unemployment major -- has a 7.2% unemployment rate, which is still better than the average for college grads. Not all aspiring wordsmiths are so lucky: Linguistics and comparative literature majors face a daunting 10.2% unemployment rate, while 8.4% of general humanities majors and 7.7% of composition and speech majors can't find jobs. As for those who love to organize books, library science majors face a daunting 15% unemployment rate.

... Except When There Is!

But there are also some attractive options for book lovers. While foreign literature isn't too attractive, foreign language studies majors do very well: Only 5.9% can't find a job. Overall, though, education is the best bet: Majors in general education, secondary education, primary education and teacher education face unemployment rates that range between 1.1% and 4.2%. And, with median salaries in the low $40,000s, these majors offer a decent return on the cost of a college degree.

What about all those poor library science majors? For those who like to work in schools, educational administration and supervision majors have 100% employment and a $65,000 median salary. On the other hand, those who love organizing knowledge could try information science: People who choose this major have a reasonably attractive 5.9% unemployment rate and an impressive $71,000 median income.

The high unemployment rate among college majors is brutal, but may ultimately be a mixed blessing. For decades, employers have emphasized specialized skills, while the education system has encouraged students toward more generalized areas of study. Students willing to spend a little time researching their options may find that a tough job market could be the impetus for a more secure -- and higher-paying -- future.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.